P4-2019-05 – Street Survival School Recap
Story by Don Kleist
photos bY Lisa Molzon
On March 4th SEMPCA hosted its seventh annual Street Survival School at Faith Christian Assembly in Melvindale, Michigan. This school is the natural follow-on to the driver’s education that most teens take prior to getting their drivers’ licenses. In those classes teens learn, as John Keilly was fond of saying, the rules of the road and how to parallel park. And the parallel parking component may be going away because there is serious discussion of eliminating the parking test. They do some driving, but not a whole lot. They learn very little about vehicle dynamics and definitely do not experience potentially dangerous situations.
This year’s school was peculiar. We opened registration in December and had a sizeable enrollment early on, only to experience a rash of cancellations in the couple of weeks prior to the school. When the school actually happened, only seven students attended. We definitely will revisit when to hold the school as we plan for the 2020 school.
But even with the small number, the school happened without a hitch. Marc Molzon served as co-chairman and conducted the driving exercises, his wife, Lisa, handled on-site registration and refreshments, both morning coffee, juice and doughnuts, lunch, and liquid refreshments, and I served as co-chairman, registrar, and presented the classroom instruction.
The classroom portion covers the basics of driving, some of the theory of how cars work, and an introduction into basic vehicle dynamics. I try to provide an understanding of what happens as cars are driven, what to do to drive them safely, and how to react to the inevitable “gotcha” situations that we encounter while driving. But the real reason for the classroom is to set the stage for the driving exercises. That is where the real learning occurs.
Our three morning exercises teach single skills like breaking, turning, and skid control. Each exercise takes only a few moments, so the students get many repetitions of each one. That way the in-car instructors can point out problems and the students can practice the proper way to control their cars. They learn from their errors, correct them, and practice proper techniques so they build both skill and confidence.
The braking exercise lets students experience how the Anti-Lock Brake System feels and works. Many of the students had never experienced what happens when the ABS engages. We had them accelerate in a straight line, then apply the brakes as hard as possible. We wanted them to engage the ABS. In later runs, we want the students to apply the brakes aggressively, but without engaging the ABS.
The turning exercise used a slalom course with unevenly spaced gates. Here, the objective was to experience vehicle dynamics in a controlled environment. We told the students to drive at speeds at which they felt comfortable, but to increase their speed as they gained experience and confidence. We marked the course with orange traffic cones and asked them to weave through the cones. Even with a clearly marked course, there were many times when cars hit cones. This might seem an easy exercise. But it takes major concentration to drive this course successfully as the speed increases.
The skid control exercise used a skid pad, a circular piece of pavement made slick in part with cracked corn. The objective here is to have students experience the feeling of their car when it is near or beyond the limits of adhesion. We do this on a slick surface so that students can gain the experience, but at relatively slow and safe speeds. This is also one of the highest rated driving exercises. It’s a lot of fun to toss a car around at a place where running into something is not a concern.
After a break for lunch the students went back to class for more details about vehicle dynamics that prepared them for the more involved afternoon driving exercises.
The afternoon exercises combine the skills honed in the morning. For the braking exercise we combine panic braking with turning. In modern cars with anti-lock brakes, this is easy. it is much more difficult in a car without ABS brakes
We do a lane changing accident avoidance exercise that combines turning, breaking, and sometimes skid control. The student accelerated the car in a straight line while watching a flagger at the far end of the parking lot. The flagger would move the flag either left or right to signal the direction in which the student should turn. The student then had to turn the car into the indicated lane and stop. This is the most difficult of all the driving exercises. Almost all students knocked over cones and in some cases, actually turned the wrong direction!
What makes this so difficult is that the students must observe a stimulus, the flag moving, determine what the stimulus means, determine how to react, then react by steering and braking their car. All of this must be done in a split second.
Even knowing from where the stimulus comes, it is hard to react properly. Imagine what could happen if a similar situation occurred on public roads where the drivers might be distracted by talking with friends, eating a burger, talking on a cell phone, or, horror of horrors, texting. Here they should learn that, even with good concentration, split second decision making and reacting is difficult.
The other afternoon exercise was a figure 8 skid pad, where the two circles were of different diameters, one clear and one slick with cracked corn. This exercise presented students with turns in both directions and constantly changing pavement conditions. This exercise was a lot of fun and showed that driving really takes intense concentration.
While the students returned to the classroom for the final wrap-up, volunteers set up a small autocross course in the perking lot. This was the “put it all together” exercise, and for many, the most fun. Watching the students drive this course, it was hard to imagine that they were the same drivers who drove slowly and tentatively in the first morning exercise. You could tell that these drivers had gained both skill and confidence during the day.